seamus dubhghaill

Promoting Irish Culture and History from Little Rock, Arkansas, USA


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The Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits

The Battle of the Ford of the Biscuits takes place in County Fermanagh on August 7, 1594 when a force of English Army soldiers led by Sir Henry Duke is ambushed and defeated by an Irish force under Hugh Maguire and Cormac MacBaron O’Neill in the region of the fords of the Arney River on the approaches to Enniskillen.

The battle acquires its distinctive name due to the supplies of the Crown forces, largely hard biscuits, which are scattered and left floating in the river. The battle is an early exchange in the Nine Years’ War, and exposes the vulnerability of Crown forces to ambushes in the wilder parts of Ulster with its thick woods and bogs.

The relief force is under the joint command of Sir Henry Duke and Sir Edward Herbert, who have 600 infantrymen and 40 horses. Duke and Herbert believe this to be insufficient, and write to the Lord Deputy that “to go without a thousand men at the least or otherwise we shall dearly repent our going.” No reinforcements are forthcoming therefore the column sets north from Cavan on August 4. Burdened with supplies, the army is expected to take four days to march 29 miles north to Enniskillen. The night before the battle the English camp is pestered by Irish gunfire and incessant skirmishing which causes the English troops to be poorly rested when the set out on August 7 to relieve the beleaguered garrison. As the thin column starts to snake its way north, almost immediately it comes under attack on both flanks as Irish skirmishes hurl javelins, but this is not the main attack.

As the relief expedition approaches Enniskillen from the south, Maguire and Cormac MacBaron lay in wait for them on the Arney River. The Army’s cavalry scouts fail to detect the Irish laying in wait for them. The ground is boggy near the Arney ford, therefore they are forced to dismount. Consequently the infantry escorting the supply wagons for Enniskillen run straight into the ambush. Around eleven o’clock the head of the column approaches the ford. Without warning intense Irish gunfire tears into the lead English elements from concealed positions on the opposite bank. With the advance stalled, Maguire and MacBaron assail the rear of the column with the bulk of their forces. Wings of English shot deploy to skirmish with the Irish, but withering Irish fire pushes them back to their pike stands in the column.

The English rear falls into disorder causing the Irish pike and Scots mercenaries to charge, forcing them to flee pell mell onto the centre of the column. The English collapse continues as the column concertinaed towards the head of the army stalled at the ford. Fortunately the leading English pike has forced the crossing, pushing back the Irish shot, giving the English some room to reorder and regroup north of the river.

The English are engaged by Irish shot from the surrounding hills, but a counter-attack is stillborn when its leader, Captain Fuller, is killed. With most of the supplies abandoned at the river, Duke and Herbert decide their only option is to retreat. However, their retreat to the ford is met with renewed gunfire and the disintegrating army is compelled to cross on another ford an “arrow shot” upstream.

Luckily for Duke and Herbert’s men they are not pursued as most of the Irish have fallen to looting the baggage train which gives the battle its name, Béal-Átha-na-mBriosgadh or The Ford of the Biscuits.

The badly-mauled Crown forces retreat to Cavan. News of the defeats causes some alarm due to the small size of the peacetime Royal Irish Army, which is scattered in garrisons across the island. Although this can be supplemented by forces of loyal Gaelic chiefs, fresh troops need to be raised in England and sent across the Irish Sea to contain the developing northern rebellion. In addition a force of soldiers who have been serving in Brittany is brought to Ireland.

A second relief expedition, this time led by the Lord Deputy of Ireland William Russell, 1st Baron Russell of Thornhaugh, manages to reach Enniskillen and re-supply it. However Enniskillen does fall to the rebels in May of the following year and the garrison is massacred, despite having been promised their lives when they surrendered.

(Photo with permission by Dr.James O’Neill (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)


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The Cavan Orphanage Fire

cavan-orphanage-fireThe Cavan Orphanage fire occurs on the night of February 23, 1943 at St. Joseph’s Orphanage in Cavan, County Cavan. Thirty-five children and one adult employee die as a result. Much of the attention after the fire surrounds the role of the Poor Clares, the order of nuns who run the orphanage and the local fire service.

The Poor Clares, an enclosed contemplative order, found a convent in Cavan in 1861 in a large premises on Main Street. In 1868, they open an orphanage. At the time young petty criminals could be educated and learn a trade in a reformatory, however, orphaned and abandoned children are not accorded the same opportunity. The Industrial Schools Act 1868 seeks to address this by the establishment of the Industrial school system. In 1869, a school, attached to the convent, is established and becomes known as the St. Joseph’s Orphanage & Industrial School.

Fire breaks out in the early morning hours of February 23, 1943, in the basement laundry and is not noticed until about 2 AM. The subsequent investigation attributes the fire to a faulty flue. The sight of smoke coming out of the building alerts people on Main Street. They go to the front entrance and attempt to gain entry. Eventually they are let in by one of the girls but, not knowing the layout of the convent, they are unable to find the girls.

By this time all of the girls have been moved into one Dormitory. At this point it would have been possible to evacuate all of the children but instead the nuns persuade the local people to attempt to extinguish the fire. Two men, John Kennedy and John McNally, go down to the laundry to try to put the fire out. The flames are now too intense for this to be possible and McNally only survives by being carried out by Kennedy.

By now it is no longer possible for the girls to get out through the main entrance or the fire escape. The local fire brigade arrives but their equipment is not sufficient for the fire. Wooden ladders are not long enough to reach the dormitory windows. In the absence of any other solution, girls are encouraged to jump. Three do so, though with injuries, however most are too frightened to attempt it. A local electricity worker, Mattie Hand, arrives with a long ladder and a local man, Louis Blessing, brings five girls down. One child leaves by way of the interior staircase while it is still accessible. One child makes it down the exterior fire escape. One child escapes by way of a small ladder held on the roof of the shed. The fire completely engulfs the dormitory and the remaining girls perish.

cavan-orphanage-graveOver concerns about the causes of the fire and the standard of care, a Public Inquiry is set up. The report’s findings state that the loss of life occurs due to faulty directions being given, lack of fire-fighting training, and an inadequate rescue and fire-fighting service. It also notes inadequate training of staff in fire safety and evacuation, both at the orphanage and local fire service. This finding has been disputed by many. It is alleged that the nuns prevent firefighters from entering the building for fear that they might see the girls in a state of undress.

Due to the nature of the fire, the remains of the dead girls are placed in eight coffins and buried in Cullies cemetery in Cavan. A memorial plaque is erected in 2010 just inside the convent gates at Main Street, Cavan. The plaque is anonymously donated to the Friends of the Cavan Orphanage Victims group.

(Pictured lower right: The grave containing the remains of the 36 victims)


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Death of Irish Songwriter Percy French

percy-frenchPercy French, one of Ireland’s foremost songwriters and entertainers of his day, dies of pneumonia in Formby, England, on January 24, 1920.

French is born at Cloonyquin House, near Tulsk, County Roscommon. He is educated at Foyle College, Derry, and writes his first successful song, Abdul Abulbul Amir, while studying at Trinity College Dublin in 1877. The song is sold for £5 to an unscrupulous publisher and later becomes hugely popular and is falsely claimed by other authors.

He graduates from Trinity as a civil engineer in 1881 and joins the Board of Works in County Cavan as an “Inspector of Drains.” It is said that he writes his best songs during this period. French is also a prolific painter of landscape watercolours and during this period he considers art to be his true vocation. When he becomes well-known later in his life, his paintings from his time as a civil engineer become fashionable and sought after.

When the Board of Works reduces its staff around 1887, French turns to journalism as the editor of The Jarvey, a weekly comic paper. Upon the failure of the paper, French embarks on a long and successful career as a songwriter and entertainer. It is around this time that French marries Ethel Kathleen Armitage-Moore, second daughter of William Armytage-Moore, brother of Countess of Annesley. Tragically, at the age of 20, she dies during childbirth along with her daughter.

percy-french-statueFrench becomes renowned for composing and singing comic songs and gains considerable distinction with such songs as Phil the Fluther’s Ball, Slattery’s Mounted Foot, and The Mountains of Mourne. One of French’s most famous songs is Are Ye Right There Michael, a song that ridicules the state of the rail system in rural County Clare. The song causes such embarrassment to the rail company that it lead to an ultimately unsuccessful libel action against French. It is said that French arrives late for the libel hearing and, when questioned by the judge on his lateness, he responds, “Your honour, I travelled by the West Clare Railway,” which results in the case being thrown out.

French takes ill while performing in Glasgow and dies of pneumonia on January 24, 1920, at the age of 65 at the home of his cousin, Canon Richardson of Green Lea, in Formby. He is buried in the churchyard of St. Luke’s Parish Church, Formby in Merseyside. A statue of him sitting on a park bench can be found in the town center of Ballyjamesduff in honour of him and his famous song, Come Back Paddy Reilly to Ballyjamesduff.